A Chiropractor vs. a Physical Therapist: What’s the Difference?
Because physical therapy and chiropractic care focus on helping patients feel better and attain a healthier state for overall wellness, it can seem as if the professions and care are interchangeable, but this isn’t true.
Understanding each practice and the similarities and differences between them can help you decide which type of care you should seek out in the event of discomfort or injury.
How are chiropractors and physical therapists similar? How are they different?
Before we dig into how the professions and treatment methods are different, let’s start with how they are alike.
Both chiropractors and physical therapists (or PTs):
- complete doctoral-level education
- must have a license or pass a board examination to practice
- may recommend a range of motion exercises to increase strength
- utilize physical elements like heat or electrical muscle stimulation during treatment
- care for the musculoskeletal system
There is overlap in their treatment approaches, too. For example, both seek to relieve pain and improve overall wellness through non-invasive methods.
Despite this, overall, there are significant differences between the professions. For example, a chiropractor is an expert in the neuromuscular system and aims to improve and maintain spinal health and wellness (which often goes hand-in-hand with care for other joints and bones in the body).
Alternatively, a physical therapist is an expert in the musculoskeletal system with a stronger emphasis on soft tissue (i.e., muscle) care than a chiropractor.
What does this mean for treatment? Generally speaking, chiropractors offer spinal manipulations or spinal subluxations to correct spinal misalignment, while physical therapists do joint mobilizations and rehab after an injury.
What to Expect From PT
A physical therapist focuses on restoring movements such as sitting, reaching, or walking, particularly after an injury or surgery. As such, practitioners often recommend exercises that you can do to improve strength, range of motion, and other functional fitness measures.
After completing a practical exam to assess your needs, a provider will create a treatment plan for you that can last for a few weeks to months. The rehab or preventative care plan is always set to suit your condition with manual treatment approaches, including tissue massage, joint mobilization, passive stretches, balance or gait training, and home exercises.
What to Expect From a Chiropractor
Chiropractic care focuses on improving and maintaining overall health and wellness by adjusting and realigning the spine to improve movement and provide pain relief. Chiropractors assess the overall health using clinical exams such as orthopedic testing, analysis of posture, range of motion, spine and joint, neurologic health, and strength. Additionally, chiropractors will often order X-rays as part of tests before offering treatment.
Like physical therapists, chiropractors will develop a treatment plan that can last from weeks to months and utilize a variety of non-invasive therapies, including spinal adjustments, electrical muscle stimulation, massage therapy, and more.
How do chiropractic care and physical therapy complement each other? Can you do both chiropractic treatments and physical therapy at the same time?
Yes! Although chiropractors and physical therapists have different specialties and use various treatment techniques, their treatment methods complement one another. Integrating the two can reap extraordinary benefits to the patient and help achieve the goals for patient care more effectively than one method alone.
People tend to think that there is contention between PTs and chiropractors or that the two systems of care don’t complement one another because providers can butt heads when determining the best treatment plan for a patient. Our areas of expertise overlap, so sometimes providers feel like they’re stepping on each other’s toes. It has to be about what’s best for the patient. When the providers aren’t fighting, the patient gets the best care because they get the expert in the musculoskeletal system (the physical therapist) and the expert in the bone (the chiropractor).
Are there times when these two systems of care should NOT be used together?
Although it’s not a bad idea to mix physical therapy and chiropractic care, you should always share treatment plans with your provider. By communicating what kind of treatment you are getting from each provider, they can work together and ensure you as the patient don’t suffer injury or strain from being overworked.
Otherwise, you can use both systems, and in any case, one can refer you to the other if your condition doesn’t fit their practice.
How do I know if I need to see a physical therapist or a chiropractor? Who can help me identify which type of care I need?
Both physical therapists and chiropractors should provide guidance as to your treatment needs and who can best manage them. If you don’t have a PT or chiropractor you are already working with, reach out to your primary care physician for a referral.
When might you need PT? When should I see a PT instead of a chiropractor?
If you are experiencing pain that limits sitting, walking, or engaging in your usual activities, you may need to visit a physical therapist. In addition, if you had surgery but are not moving efficiently, taking a rehab session with a physical therapist may be a good idea. Physical therapists help you regain full mobility.
When might I need chiropractic care? When should I see a chiropractor instead of a physical therapist?
If you have a bone injury affecting your movement, it might be best to visit a chiropractor. Additionally, if you are suffering from acute pain in the neck or back, are experiencing chronic pain or joint pain, or suffered a recent injury to the back, spine, or joints (like slipping on ice), it’s likely best to reach out to a chiropractor for care.
Why Smerglia Chiropractic Takes a Patient-First Approach to Healthcare
At Smerglia Chiropractic, we pride ourselves on providing the finest chiropractic and wellness care. Our patient-first approach means we’re happy to refer patients and collaborate with expert providers to ensure the best care for you. Are you looking to improve your spinal health? Reach out to learn more about how we can help you achieve your wellness goals today.